Monday, June 30, 2008

Returning to "work"

I've returned from vacation, refreshed, recharged, but not quite raring to go. I almost didn't go on this vacation because I felt guilty for leaving work behind. How would the students function? Who would do x? Who would do y? What if something happens? Vacation got me away from those questions, from the day-to-day grind. Yes, I checked in on email, but only to see if anything had truly blown up. Nothing had. I gained some perspective on vacation that I hope to keep. I had lots of good conversations--about relationships, raising children, public schooling, politics, and friendship--the kinds of conversations I sometimes never make time for. But these are often the things that really matter.

It's too easy to get caught up in the swirl of activity that passes for work. Everyone needs to be doing something. Running around getting things done. But that's not what I want to be doing. I want to, as Barbara Ganley recently said, be noodling, thinking and doing things that will make a difference (via Leslie). I have always felt this way and have mostly approached my work this way, but it's often easy to slide into responding to email, answering the phone, and responding to whatever walks in the door instead of being more deliberate about what to do and when to do it. That's difficult to do sometimes when the emails you receive have a tone of desperation in them or are demanding and insistent. It's hard to step back from those and think, "Should I do this thing I'm being asked to do? How should I respond? How should I approach this problem?" I, and many others, don't stop to think about these things, but I think we need to. We should not just do it. We should be deliberate about what we do.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Sorry about the radio silence. It's been a busy week in a run-up to vacation. I've been keeping up with the blog reading (mostly), but not the writing. I hope to actually write something when I return. Maybe there'll be pictures.

Friday, June 13, 2008

On falling behind

One of my frustrations with the time it took me to finish the menial labor (10 hours all told) was that it was putting me further and further behind. I had been on vacation just before Memorial Day. I returned to 4 days of intense planning for the following week of 9-5 training. That meant that email, tickets, phone calls and other incoming bits of information just wasn't getting much attention. And those projects I had wanted to work on? Yeah, not so much.

So yesterday, I decided enough was enough. I determined to clean out the inbox, check off the to-do list and be fresh and ready to go. And sure enough, I did it. I have only 10 or so emails in the inbox. My to-do list is up to date and I feel much less stressed and actually feel like I can accomplish something. How did I do it? By working at home. It's amazing how much time the face-to-face interruptions at work take. Sometimes I welcome them. Sometimes I initiate them, but sometimes they really are keeping me from getting work done. And then there's the phone and email. I do make every attempt to check email 2-3 times a day, but it's true that occasionally a message comes through that sends me into a half-hour tailspin. I'm trying to be more zen about these things and I think not feeling like I'm behind will help with that. When email feels like pile-on, it's hard not to get frustrated by incoming requests.

My goal for the summer: to not fall behind. What this means is scheduling appropriately, doing what my calendar tells me, and not avoiding tasks. So what I've started doing is looking at my to-do list and really assessing whether I've set due dates appropriately. It doesn't make sense to have 15 tasks due on one day, especially if 2 or 3 of those will take several hours to accomplish. I am trying to be better about spreading out the work and assessing what really needs to get done and what can honestly wait. I've also started working on whatever my calendar tells me to work on. I make appointments with myself for a reason. Now I need to keep them. I'm also working on just doing the unpleasant things. Some of these I can consider delegating and my colleagues are great support for sharing the work load when necessary. I'm also trying to anticipate the work that's coming--beginning of the semester overload--and finding a way to make sure that those who dump tasks on me at the beginning of the semester don't dump them on me all at once. It's also going to mean getting help.

I think, too, I need to recognize sooner when I'm falling behind and sequester myself sooner. It would have been much better if I could have gotten through my work in an hour instead of 5 hours. Five hours of catching up is five hours I could have spend focusing on long-term projects and goals. I need to remember that lost time the next time I'm starting to see the inbox fill up.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Dilemma of Service

Yesterday, I shouted out via Twitter my frustration at having to do some menial labor on behalf of a couple of faculty. I actually didn't mean to shout that to the world, but most people sympathized, even empathized. I've been trying ever since to analyze the reasons for my frustration.

I've had the experience in the last couple of months (although really this has probably happened for years) of having people say something along the lines of "I just don't get this technology" or "My brain just can't grasp this technology stuff." This from people who hold Ph.D.'s. Like a lot of things people say when it comes to technology, I think this is an excuse and it frustrates me. Yes, it takes some time to figure things out, and no, it doesn't always work perfectly and yes, when that happens, it's frustrating. But I want to ask, do you give up if you don't understand something you're reading? can't solve a formula? can't find the right way to frame an argument? Would you let your students throw up their hands so easily?

And then there's just the personal frustration I feel at doing something I consider below my pay grade. Even though what I might be doing involves technology, it really falls into the category of what one might ask an administrative assistant to do. And maybe that's my own personal issue that I need to get over, but some of the stuff I've been asked to do (and in some cases have actually done) are things I did as a first-year grad student and got paid $9/hr (a hefty sum in those days). So I think I'm justified in feeling that my talents are wasted when I'm doing these tasks and that in some ways, it's a waste of college resources. The time I'm spending doing these things is time I'm not spending working with my students, developing long-term plans, working on projects that benefit the entire community. And I've had the experience of having to table projects because I just didn't have the time to devote to them. And it takes much longer--around a year to a year and half--to bring a project into production, because I only have a small amount of time to devote to it.

And here's the catch-22. If I had more time, I could develop more materials that might help faculty do more of these things themselves. Instead, it just becomes easier to do it for them. Sigh.

It's difficult to say to a faculty member, I'm sorry I can't do that for you or I won't do that for you. I mean their work is important. It's often time-sensitive in a way that mine sometimes isn't (though this is debatable).

Further, I think my frustration stems from a disconnect between my understanding of my role and theirs. I see myself as a consultant. In that role, I sit down with them. We talk about their goals. I make some suggestions for directions to go and tools to use and I may then teach them how to use those tools. I may follow up and see how things are going, make suggestions for improvements or talk about how to rethink something for next time. And there are faculty with whom I have this exact relationship, but it accounts for about 1%. For the great majority, I am an encyclopedia to get answers from about *any* technology, whether it's related to education or not (how do I sort folders in email? what is blu-ray? how do I set up wireless?).* Or I am the digital kinkos--scan this document, copy these video clips or audio files. Or I am TA/admin assistant--add this student to my Bb course, upload this document, copy these files from my other class. It's not that I don't appreciate the need to have someone else do these things. Some of them are not easy. Some of them are time-consuming. I just don't think we are currently resourced for having me do all of that for over 200 faculty. As a colleague of mine often says, there's one of me and 200 of you, you do the math.

The dilemma is, I do want to help people, but I need to know where to draw the line. And once I know that, I need for people to respect the line and take some responsibility for their own work.

*Sadly, these are real questions I've gotten.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Digital Scholarship

Friday's Chronicle posted this article suggesting that web sites should be reviewed and certified by scholarly organizations so that they can be "counted" by tenure and promotion committees. I was bristling as I read this, thinking that Olson missed the point of electronic scholarship entirely. And, as it turns out, Barbara Fister at ARClog expressed what I was feeling much better than I could:
The fact is, these are two entirely separate issues. The quality of websites can be evaluated - and peers already do that. Whether academics are willing to broaden their notions of what counts as scholarship and to consider electronic projects as serious work is another matter altogether. Replicating a cumbersome print-based peer review mechanism, flaws and all, is not the solution. Doing the real work of evaluating a colleague’s scholarship - without relying on university presses and journals to do the vetting for them - is what’s called for. Oh, and a more imaginative and open-minded definition of what scholarship is.
I was thinking all along about stories of abuse in the peer review system, one most egregious case outlined at Adventures in Ethics and Science. The proposal for evaluation assumes a lot of things. First, that these scholarly organizations would know a good web site when they see one. And two, that they'd be unbiased in their review process. Given that the problem trying to be solved is the "generational bias" that may exist on T&P committees, are the faculty sitting in positions at scholarly organizations any different?

On the plus side, it could provide validation for work that isn't getting validation right now. If a stamp of approval is what it takes to move us toward that validation, then maybe it's the right way to go.

I guess what I don't want to see is the same old scholarship being the only thing that gets "approved." There is some interesting work being done in other forms that deserves attention. The latest Kairos issue, for example, includes video and powerpoint slide decks. And Kathleen Fitzpatrick is putting her work that discusses this very issue on her blog. There is a place for both kinds of work, I think, and it may be that one wins out over the other, 20 years from now. However work online gets validated, we really do need to take some steps in this direction. Otherwise, we risk becoming irrelevant.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Run for the hills, I have a teenager

As of 1 a.m. today, I am officially the mother of a teenager. Geeky Boy turned 13. Holy cow, how'd that happen? Wasn't he just 2 last week? People ask me all the time if he's a "typical" teenager. I don't think so--mostly. He does a few typical teenage things, like sleep until noon. But so far, he hasn't been mean or rebellious or surly or any of the so-called "bad" traits of teenagedom.

So far, he's at core a good kid and will remain so even if the road gets a little rocky in the next few years.

Conversation happening right now.

Geeky Boy: "I want to catch up with George Lucas."
Mr. Geeky: "What? Why?"
Geeky Boy: "I want to pass him in age."
Mr. Geeky: "Why? It's not a race."
Geeky Boy: "Yes, it is."
Mr. Geeky: "You know each year you get older, the closer you are to death."
Geeky Boy (staring incredulously from the doorway): "That's a nice thought, Dad."
Laughter ensues.

Yep, that's how we celebrate birthdays--reminding ourselves how much closer to death we are.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

More on Edupunk: Learning should be fun

Andy writes a post about how everyone's taking this whole EDUPUNK thing too seriously. Maybe that's true, but I think it's interesting how people get their panties in a wad over some people encouraging others to have fun in teaching and learning. And who are having fun themselves. Maybe it's the other people taking themselves too seriously. I mean, yes, teaching and learning is serious, and many of the proponents of EDUPUNK believe in the power of learning. But part of the fun, part of the rebelliousness, the teenagerism of this "movement" is that we believe that learning should not be just to serve the purposes of the "military-industrial" complex. It should be more than that, and it should, in fact, provide students with personal freedom, an ability to think and learn for themselves, and to make intelligent decisions about how to contribute to the world and make it a better place. And that is serious. But it should also be fun. And in that spirit, I offer the following EDUPUNK video (via Abject Learning.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Women and Science, again

Actually, women and any career, again. There have been numerous posts about a recent report on the lack of women in science and technology careers*, pointing to the sexism and macho culture as the main reason women leave these careers. Needless to say the comments on some of those posts have been frustrating. My least favorite comment by far, and more than one person has made this comment, is that motherhood and [insert time-consuming and challenging career here] are not compatible. Let me point out that no one ever says fatherhood and [time consuming career] are not compatible. Why? And why do people say that motherhood and careers are incompatible? There is an underlying assumption that women, because they physically give birth (though not always), a) will need to/want to devote more time to childcare than a man who does not give birth and b) no one else will be there to do the childcare. Fatherhood is not incompatible with a career because there's an assumption that a) he does not want to/need to devote time to childcare and b) there's someone else to do the childcare.

I call BS. Yes, caring for a child takes time and effort and that time and effort should be split equally between the parents (unless, of course, there's only 1 parent). That means that the mothers often have to ask for that time. And it means that they need to not feel guilty about asking for that or about working instead of spending time with the kids. A lot of the time that I see women put in with their kids is out of a sense of duty brought on by other mothers. It's not that they put that pressure on purposefully. It's that when your husband comes home from the play/birthday party/soccer game and explains he was the only dad there, one might feel pressure. And it means dads need to step up to the plate and not wait to be asked. I have seen far too many dads who have no clue what's going on with their kids, have no idea what their schedule is, are just completely out of it. Our culture encourages that, unfortunately. And these comments reveal that that is the case.

This blogger is correct. What we need is to remove those obstacles: provide childcare, encourage men to be involved fathers, create a hospitable work environment. I think what's happened is that there's been not only the assumptions made above, but also the assumption that it's 2008 and this shouldn't be an issue anymore and it's just because women choose not to hold heavy-duty careers. Employers and institutions need to get more proactive about creating policies and insisting upon an atmosphere that's not just accepting of women, but welcoming and encouraging. Far too often, I think they assume that because they've hired some women, they've done their job for equality.

*more links in the second post.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Like Alan, I had my head down while the Edupunk meme flew around the blogosphere and landed in the Chronicle. I first caught wind of it at Leslie's (which seems to be where most everyone else caught it, too), and she provides a great summary of the whole movement. My favorite post so far, however, comes from Serena, who went so far as to interview some students to see what they think about the whole thing. What's clear from the answers from the students is that some are net savvy, some aren't, but almost all feel that their professors (with a couple of exceptions) just aren't on the same playing field with them on the Internet. And Blackboard? Booooring.

The thing is, for many faculty I've met, the whole idea should appeal. We've often discussed the idea that most faculty feel like they're entrepreneurs anyway, so why not do their own thing when it comes to using technology? Why lock yourself into a vanilla system? Well, because in their disciplinary fields, they know enough to strike out on their own and are, in fact, expected to. But in technology, not so much. Most don't know where to begin and are afraid to take the time to find out. So most settle for just the basics even though they're missing out on opportunities to help their students learn their disciplines better. In some schools, in some disciplines, there's also a movement toward standardization, which means using some kind of system as opposed to going solo. Which also sucks. This quote, from Lauren, a student at UMW, captures what everyone's missing by not exploring options:
I mean, there are no identical institutions of learning, classes, and certainly no identical students! We all learn differently and it’s great that now we have so many different and customizable ways to learn and share our learning.
Rather than tap into those "different and customizable ways to learn," too many people shoehorn everyone into one method or one place. Like I said below about focusing on process, it's harder this way, but everyone benefits in the end.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Process vs. Product

In the composition field, process has been the buzzword for well over 20 years. The idea behind the buzzword is that for good writing to happen, teachers can't focus on the commas and spelling. Some attention needs to be paid to how that writing gets onto the paper in the first place. Only then will students be able to produce good products. The idea of focusing on the process of something is somewhat inherent to all of education and is, in fact, what the anti-test educators among us are focused on. This next week, I'm putting the concept of "process first" to work in a completely different setting.

Every summer, I coordinate the Summer Multimedia Development Institute, a program designed to both teach students multimedia skills and to produce products. Many of the products the students have produced over the years have been very good. They've received rave reviews from alums and have even been cited in MLA presentations. What this has meant, unfortunately, is that the expectations for excellent products has increased and the idea that this is a learning opportunity has nearly fallen by the wayside. And sometimes, honestly, the products aren't so good, which makes both the students and the people for whom the products are being produced feel bad. I look at it as a learning experience, but because there has been this focus on product, the other people involved are just disappointed.

This summer, I've completely reconfigured the program to focus on "educational" products and on the process of learning to create those products. This means that we're not creating products for the alumni office or the admissions department (both of whom I've argued should hire professional multimedia developers). It also means I've built in lots of ways for the students and the faculty working with them to become conscious of the process. We have a blog and the students will all be creating their own blogs and will be asked to write and reflect there on what they're learning. I'm encouraging them to reflect on their technical skills, on working with faculty, and on the challenges of working with technology in an educational settings among other things.

Focusing on process is actually harder. Creating the necessary framework, communicating to everyone involved that it's not about the product, and doing a lot of reflecting and listening is harder than just giving feedback on a finished product. We'll be doing some of that, too, but we'll be doing it within this process-based framework. While it may be harder, I think it will actually be less stressful. Where before students might have felt obligated to produce professional quality work, they can now focus on doing their best and working with their faculty as partners rather than in a kind of client-customer relationship. Honestly, they might produce better work anyway. At the very least, I want them to have thought a lot about what they did and to have learned from it in a way that they can apply that knowledge in the future. Actually, I want everyone involved to learn something--including me--and that's why I like doing things this way even if it is harder.